Within our communities and our movements we seek to hold each other and ourselves accountable for the violence we enact on our own and other’s bodies and spirits. We hold space for and validate rage, sadness, pain, confusion, despair, withdrawal and whatever other reactions having violence enacted on our bodies and spirits might elicit. We work to call folks in (but more often call them out) for enacting said violence on our bodies and spirits. At the end of the day, though, there is an understanding that despite our best efforts, everyone has, does, and will continue to fuck up.
We condemn and resist the state for the violence they enact on our communities and the ways we act as agents of the state (knowingly and unknowingly) by perpetuating, enforcing, and/or dismissing various forms of oppression.
We condemn and resist the violence that is anti-Blackness, xenophobia, Islamo-racism, classism, ableism, femmephobia, heterosexism, and transmisogyny at an interpersonal, institutional, and ideological level.
We also condemn and resist capitalism, prisons, the gender binary, militarism, the police, imperialism, and borders as violent. And rightly so.
At some point, I accepted that for me to enact physical or sexual violence, or to have that violence enacted on me, was the most shameful and reprehensible violence that could exist. I am working to critique that notion, one that now seems to be dripping with white feminist bullshit, and to problematize the hierarchy of violence that we continue to reinforce.
Who decided that capitalism is more or less violent than physical abuse? And why do we insist on ranking the severity of a particular form of violence on an arbitrary scale? If we recognize that hierarchies can be in and of themselves violent, we must also recognize that understanding violence within a hierarchical framework will not serve us.
Unconsciously, I had accepted that some forms of violence were worse than others and subsequently learned to rank the trauma I experienced arbitrarily. The most violent “offenders”, were those who had sexually assaulted me. Just below them, I placed a former partner who was both verbally and emotionally abusive, but only put their hands on me once. Next, white folks, mostly from my hometown, who decided they were drunk or reckless or hateful enough to finally shout out the racial slurs they’d been wanting to call me all along. And the folks who threatened to harm my family because we were Black folks who didn’t belong in their colonial white town. Then maybe the friends, family, and school administrators who told me my queerness was dangerous, unacceptable, disgusting, etc. Then maybe a particular experience with someone on the train who told me I should have been murdered with everyone else in Orlando. After, men who sexually harassed me when I went out, cat-called me when I walked past, and followed me asking for my number and making sure I knew I was a bitch when I refused. Sometimes I threw my own self-harm in there. Microagressessions fell somewhere near the bottom, no matter which identities they targeted.
So experiences with sexual assault were more violent than racism. And street harassment was less violent than homophobic bullshit.
But why? And when the hell did I accept that’s just the way it was? Honestly, my experiences with racism were much more traumatic for me than my experiences with sexual assault, but because I had accepted sexual violence was the most extreme form of violence, I invalidated my own experience and downplayed the trauma it brought up for me.
I ranked the violence I enacted on a similar scale. If most of the violence I enacted fell within the “less violent” categories, I could tell myself I really wasn’t that violent and I was much better than the folks who were.
Doing so shifted my focus away from the much more systemic violence that I and others experience and caused me to recognize individual violence as more violent than anything else. It allowed me to minimize the impact of the violence I enact or have enacted by living on occupied land. Or polluting the environment. Or perpetuating ableist bullshit. Or dismissing folks experiencing homelessness. Or reinforcing the gender binary. It encouraged me to disregard the importance of working to end violence in all forms, not just in forms we have been conditioned to see as “more violent”.
I have confronted in myself, and in so many of those I love, a feeling of superiority that relies on a hierarchical understanding of violence. It seems to be that while we feel shitty about the particular ways we enact violence on other’s bodies and spirits (e.g. microaggressions, silencing), we consider such violence to be less violent than physical or sexual assault.
That yes, we may misgender someone, but at least we never taunted them as they walked down the street. Or sure we might assume a Black person is dangerous, but at least we aren’t hitting our partners. And of course, we might be funding and supporting military occupation abroad, but we could never ever sexually assault someone. We convince ourselves that although we perpetuate oppression, and therefore violence, because it is seemingly less tangible, we are better than those who enact physical and sexual violence on others.
In distancing ourselves from “those people”, we not only affirm certain forms of violence as being more acceptable than others and inhibit ourselves from empathizing with members of our communities, we also fail to realize that we are just as capable of enacting physical and sexual violence as “those people” are.
We refuse to recognize that despite our feelings of moral superiority, we may already exist as a perpetrator in someone else’s narrative.
I am still coming to terms with that. My understanding of self has shifted from being someone who has not only experienced violence, but perpetuated it. And not only the forms of violence I arbitrarily deemed as more acceptable, but also those I had been taught all my life were most horrifying.
There is a great deal of shame, but also humility, that comes with the realization that despite your “wokeness” and radical understanding of the world, that you are more human than you know. That the harm you can bring to others is not limited to certain types of violence.
As a Black, queer, woman (most days) from the South, I have been forced to live with and live through continued assaults on my identities and my existence. It is easier for me to focus on the violence I have experienced and to share the stories of that violence with others.
I am terrified of shifting that focus to the violence I have perpetuated and to share stories of that violence with others. But I have to own that I have both experienced and perpetrated violence. I owe nothing to those who have enacted violence on my body and spirit. Those whose bodies and spirits I have enacted violence upon owe me nothing as well.
I don’t seek to excuse my own, or anyone else’s actions. I do seek to situate them within larger issues of state and state-sanctioned violence. I also seek to complicate what it means to resist disposability when you feel like you deserve to be disposed of. Not only for what has happened to you, but for what you have done to others.
How do we make space to heal not only from the violence we have experienced but also the violence we have perpetuated? And is sharing such stories a radical act of vulnerability, a sad and futile attempt for redemption, some sort of fucked up apologist proclamation, or all of the above?
I do know that if we are still legitimizing some forms of violence as more or less acceptable than others, we have some work to do. We cannot continue to understand forms of violence through a hierarchical framework. Relying on such a framework demands that we distance ourselves from each other and prevents us from truly addressing the violence our communities both experience and perpetuate.
If seek to live in my truth, I need to be open about the ways I’ve fucked up and create space for others to work through how they’ve fucked up as well. If I insist on extending love and compassion to others, I also have to insist on extending that love and compassion to myself. And I know that healing is not only a life-long process for those who have experienced violence, but for those who have enacted it as well.